If you are a leader you are subject to pressure, because pressure is the demand to perform well. You may love pressure. You know you do your best work under pressure. When the deadline looms is when you kick into gear. It is because of your ability to absorb pressure that you have been given a leadership role.
But – what happens when the pressure becomes uncomfortable? When the demands are more than you can manage. When your sense of being in control disappears. When you feel unsupported, and when your emotions become entangled in the situation. In those conditions pressure becomes stress.
I have yet to meet any leader who thrives on stress, and yet it has become an accepted condition of working life. It is often only when stress shouts loudly, through showing up as physical or mental illness that it gets attention.
Much stress does not shout loud enough to be noticed. It silently simmers under the surface, whilst shaping how people show up at work. Many leaders struggle through tough times, whilst feeling depleted, and hoping no one will notice. The reality is it is noticed, even if it is not acknowledged. Team members sense that their leader is less available to them and less connected to their work. They notice mood changes and loss of optimism. In turn their sense of commitment to their work, their optimism about what can be achieved and their willingness to stick at the tough stuff is directly impacted by what they are noticing in their leader.
Stress impacts on the whole system around a leader (both at work and at home). However, no matter how heavy the pressure, stress is not an inevitable. Sitting between the two is the amazing quality resilience. A quality which we all have, but which at times can desert us. When present, it buffers us so that we can deal with the difficult. As we lose access to it, our susceptibility to stress increases.
The challenge for leaders is how to retain access to those resilience qualities that life has already provided, and how to increase resilience capacity to work through difficult times.
The answer I have discovered through research and many years of working with leaders as an executive coach, is that resilient leaders are skilled at learning how to manage their energy sources:
The three energy sources
Physical energy is shaped by how you take care of your body as a resource that deserves to be looked after well, if you are to do good work. Rather seeing the head as the source of your skill and the body as a neglected attachment, resilient leaders accept that the well-being of the body affects the power of the brain. How well your body is resourced through food, exercise and sleep directly affects how well your brain functions.
Mental energy is depleted by the time we give to going over what is unchangeable or catastrophising the future. It is reduced by expending energy in multiple directions rather than focusing on what is most important now. We can increase our mental energy by:
- Learning how to challenge our thoughts, rather than being undermined by them
- Considering how your purpose as an individual and your purpose as a leader are aligned.
It is hard to sustain emotional energy when feeling pessimistic about the present and future. It is hard to sustain positive emotions when life is so absorbed by work that there is little energy left for life outside of work. Sustaining emotional energy is helped by:
- Being able to recognise what is OK alongside all the challenges of work
- Having supporters who can give a loving boot to help you move forward
- Ensuring you do things that enable you to use other parts of you; whether that is helping out your child’s rugby team, singing your heart out in a choir, playing a sport (no matter how badly) or writing poetry. When we do something different we re-balance and renew.
Since every leader requires resilience to deal with the demands of the day to day, as well as those events which destabilise us, every leader owes it to themselves to manage their own resources well alongside those of the organisation they work for.
To find out more about how you can develop resilience as a leader then click to this link for details of my new Resilient Leadership on line programme